Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me

Films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tampopo, North by Northwest
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop (Raiders, Tampopo), and on middlin'-sized living room television (Northwest).

It would be natural to assume that, what with today being Halloween, that I spent the day watching things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and (of course) Halloween. That would be a natural assumption, but an incorrect one. As it happens, today is my birthday. Instead of watching scary films, I watched my three favorite films on the list. These are Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tampopo, and North by Northwest, which is my favorite movie of all time.

I was 13 when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (I refuse to call it by its reissued name) in the theater. This is still one of the greatest theater experiences I have ever had, and likely ever will have. Sometimes, everything simply falls together precisely and an extended moment becomes an event remembered forever. That was Raiders for me on that first viewing.

Raiders was made at a time when Spielberg could do no wrong, and a big part of the reason was that he was making films for his inner child. This was modern pulp cinema, the sort of thing that was serialized weekly in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s filled with evil, adventure, buried treasure, bad guys, and a two-fisted hero who steps a little over the line when the situation warrants. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) is essentially Doc Savage with a fedora and a whip, and that’s what he’s supposed to be. That he’s also a respected professor of archaeology matters not at all (Doc Savage was a scholar, too). We true believers know that professor is just his day job. Dr. Jones is a professional adventurer, an “obtainer of rare antiquities.”

So there I was, 13 years old, popcorn and soda clutched in my teenaged fists. I’d heard a little about the film at this point, and I’m excited. After all, it’s not that many years since I had my geekdom defined and solidified by Star Wars. I knew enough about the tradition of pulps to expect some of what was coming—I’d read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs at this point, so I knew there’d be crazy action and battling against great evil.

And then the film, the glorious film. In the first 15 minutes, our hero whips the gun out of a guy’s hand, breaks through diabolical traps with his doomed companion Satipo (Alfred Molina), recovers an ancient artifact, survives a double-cross, narrowly escapes certain death, is chased by a huge round boulder, gets the artifact stolen by his French adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman), is chased through the South American jungle by a tribe of natives, and escapes. This is what a geek boner looks like.

And then, it gets better.

The film centers around the Ark of the Covenant, the box that Moses put the pieces of the Ten Commandments in after he came down from Mount Horeb. American authorities have gotten wind that Hitler has designs on the Ark, since an army that marches behind it is invincible. Indy is the guy to get it, though, because his old mentor is named specifically in the cable as having a piece necessary for the Ark’s recovery.

What follows is the chase. Indy locates where his mentor was last seen and discovers instead his mentor’s daughter Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). She’s also an old flame, and the source of the falling out between Indy and his mentor, and this complicates matters. After a run-in with the Nazis, led by creepy Nazi sadist Toht (Ronald Lacey), she accompanies Jones to Egypt and the site of the dig. Here they meet Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Jones’s friend. They discover the true resting place of the Ark, have massive fights in the Cairo market, and generally tear the place up before they are captured again, put into terrible situations, and more. Jones and Marion are trapped in a pit with snakes, and then there’s a fist fight around a burning airplane.

Eventually, the Nazis drive off with the Ark, and Jones pursues, leading to one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. Jones battles a group of Nazis, gets thrown off the front of the truck, crawls underneath, and ultimately drives off with the Ark in his possession. He and Marion sail off on a pirate freighter hired by Sallah, the Ark safely in the hold.

At this point, my 13-year-old self literally stood up and prepared to leave. I was completely unprepared for there to be another 20 minutes of movie that was easily as awesome as the first hour and a half. The first 90 minutes are so good that I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

That’s the magic of this film—all of the action here fits into a package just under two hours long. That epic chase scene that I would have guessed lasts about 15 minutes is actually about seven or eight. Every part of that sequence is so good and so memorable, that my mind naturally expands it out to the length it would be in another film.

This is why I love it. It’s a giant rollercoaster and the hills never get smaller. Raiders is indelibly a part of American mythology and world culture. The soundtrack, the iconic look, the giant rolling stone, the guy in the market with the huge sword, even the warehouse at the end are all a part of the collective world consciousness and forever will be. Raiders is what an action movie ought to be, and every time I see it, I’m a 13-year-old kid having the best time he ever did in a movie theater.

On the other end of the film landscape is Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. As American as Raiders is, Tampopo is entirely Japanese. No one from another culture could make Tampopo, nor could the film be accurately remade without it changing drastically. It is a perfect marriage of time and culture, a unique artifact that would be much less made a year or two earlier or later, or from another cultural standpoint.

All cultures, of course, have a relationship with food, and this relationship varies from place to place and people to people. This relationship is what the film explores, both in the main story and in the short vignettes that pop up throughout the running time. Food plays a role in every scene in the movie. In this film, food is life, love, family, death, friendship, sex, and desire. Food is celebration and work. It is all consuming and all consumed.

Perhaps to demonstrate how food affects all things, Itami creates a cinematic onion for us. We first hear from a gangster (Koji Yakusho) who acknowledges that he is watching a movie just as we are watching him in a movie. Our scene then shifts to two men eating noodles. The old teacher instructs the young pupil on the proper technique for eating and enjoying a bowl of ramen. Then we discover that this is actually a book being read by a pair of truck drivers. They are made hungry by the story, so the stop at a little restaurant for a bite. The driver, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his assistant Gun (Ken Watanabe) just want a quiet bowl of noodles, but they get more than they bargain for. The owner of the place is Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is being harassed by Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka). Pisken eventually starts a fight with Goro, who sleeps off the aftermath in the restaurant.

The next morning over breakfast, Goro and Gun inform Tampopo that her noodles are bad. The genius here is that they speak of the noodles as if they are pieces of art—they have a basic integrity, but lack guts. Tampopo begs the pair to help her. All she wants is to be a great noodle cook. Goro finally agrees, and this is the main plot of the film.

As the film goes on, we add more characters to Tampopo’s quest. Goro enlists an old doctor (Yoshi Kato), now a derelict. He leads a troupe of gourmet hobos, and is himself an expert in all things in the kitchen. The rescue of an old wealthy man in a restaurant adds Shohei (Kinzoh Sakura), who is both chauffer and noodle professional. Pisken, who is a building contractor, jumps in as well, after another fight with Goro.

Each man add his own part to the whole. While Goro helps Tampopo build herself into a great chef, the old doctor works on the soup. Shohei helps her figure out the best recipe for her noodles. Pisken handles the redesign of the shop into something that fits her smaller frame. Gun takes on her physical transformation from mousy widow into true noodle chef.

Through all of this, scenes that relate to Japan’s unique food culture appear and play out like little comic intermissions. Our gangster friend figures frequently, but many have no particular connection to the main story, except that food is always a central theme. Witness the group of executives ordering from a fancy restaurant, only to be upstaged by the most junior member. Witness the spaghetti eating lesson in which Japanese girls learn how to properly eat Italian noodles. They are copied incorrectly by the American businessman, and then copy him incorrectly in turn. Witness the dying mother rising one last time to cook food for her children before expiring.

In addition to celebrating food in all of its endless varieties, Tampopo has great fun with other film styles as well, gently and lovingly spoofing them. Tampopo’s reverie is clipped from virtually every classic Western, for instance, complete with the little kid running in and telling the homesteaders (Tampopo and Goro in this case) that the bad guys have arrived. The vignette with the money swindle is straight out of film noir, with little pancakes taking the role of femme fatale. The rice omelet cooking scene is silent comedy, and could have been done by Chaplin. These are loving and sweet spoofs, though, done with a wink and paying homage as much as they tease.

Tampopo is a love letter to food, but it’s also much more. It is a uniquely Japanese expression of what food means to all of us, from the rich to the poor. People die for a dinner, risk their lives for a special treat. They make a fetish of the textures and smells of food, and use it for both gastronomic and sexual pleasure. They risk offending their superiors, job loss, international incident, and loss of freedom for just one bite of a delicacy. Food is our first thought once we are born and our last thought before we die. Food is life. It is love, survival, meaning, and society. It is through food that we interact with others and the world. Food is everything.

I have watched this film over and over, and it never becomes old. It also never fails to make me ravenously hungry, particularly the rice omelet and the little pancake scene.

It’s also worth noting that even if this weren’t a completely engaging and lovable film, it would still be worth watching. Visually, it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. The camera work is stunning throughout. Even with a static camera, Itami always gets the audience to look exactly where he wants through the blocking of the actors and color. Watch the scene in the train station, where your eye moves precisely where Itami tells it to go with Tampopo’s movement combined with the color of her dress and the banner. Note the scene at the start in Tampopo’s restaurant where Pisken and Goro are perfectly framed by Pisken’s thugs. These shots are things of beauty, just like the food.

For our third and final film in today’s triple feature, we get my favorite movie ever, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I dearly love this movie. It is, I think the perfect film. It contains virtually every element I want in a film, and all as good as I could want them.

Our main player is Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive with a couple of failed marriages. He’s out for a drink with a few colleagues when he realizes he’s made a mistake. He’s got plans to meet his mother, but needs to contact her, so he pages a worker in the hotel bar to place his call. Unfortunately for him, that worker is looking for a man named Kaplan at the behest of a couple of shady characters. When Thornhill stands up, they assume he’s Kaplan, and they kidnap him.

They take him to the home of a man named Lester Townsend, who threatens Thornhill. Evidently, Townsend and his group of thugs believe that Thornhill is a spy sent to stop them in some nefarious dealings. Thornhill, of course, has no clue as to what is going on, and can’t help them. Townsend decides that since he won’t help, Thornhill needs to be disposed of, and he leaves the job to his associate, Leonard (Martin Landau). Leonard pumps our ad exec full of booze and sends him down the road to a fatal crash, but Thornhill takes the wheel instead and drives into a police car. A good amount of the humor in the film comes in this scene, where the blasted-out-of-his-mind Thornhill calls his mother and sings about being hammered on bourbon to the police.

Protesting his innocence, Thornhill discovers that things at the Townsend house are not what he thought. Everyone there seems to recognize him, and Lester Townsend is addressing the United Nations that morning. However, when Thornhill goes to find out what happened, he discovers a few important things. First, Lester Townsend at the UN is not the man he met the night before. Second, the real Lester Townsend is killed by a thrown knife, and now Thornhill is on the run, since it appears that he was the killer.

We also discover a few important clues that Thornhill doesn’t know. Kaplan isn’t real. He’s a fake secret agent following on the trail of a man named Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who masqueraded as Townsend. Additionally, the government has an agent in place very near Vandamm, and nothing can be done for poor Mr. Thornhill.

What does happen, though, is that while escaping from New York on the train, Thornhill meets the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). She’s traveling alone…or is she? She’s the agent placed near Vandamm, and while she knows Thornhill is innocent, she also can’t blow her own cover. There’s a connection between Eve and Roger, which gives us a romantic element to our mistaken identity thriller. There’s a chemistry between them, and a lot of good innuendo.

And on and on it goes. We learn that Vandamm is a smuggler, and what he’s smuggling is microfilm to enemy governments. All Thornhill wants is to survive, and to run away with Eve if he can, but Eve is in mortal danger.

North by Northwest is filled with wonderful set pieces and scenes that will be around as things to study for as long as films are being made. Hitchcock could pull off long scenes where nothing happens, but tension increases constantly. The bus sequence is absolutely this. Told he will meet Kaplan at a country bus stop, Thornhill waits. Cars drive past and don’t stop. People show up and ignore him. A car pulls up and a man gets out, but he’s not Kaplan, either. Eventually, the bus comes and Kaplan still doesn’t arrive. All of this takes a long time, and while nothing really happens, by the end of the scene, the tension is palpable. The payoff is an attack from men armed with a machine gun attacking from a crop duster.

There are scenes like this throughout the film, and each one is a set piece of how to make a movie. The conclusion, which takes place on the faces of Mount Rushmore, is one of the great final scenes in history.

In my mind, North by Northwest is the perfect film. It’s exciting, interesting, and a little bit sexy. It’s also got a great plot, and was directed by one of the greatest stylists ever to touch a movie camera. Hitchcock made a lot of great films, and while I know that Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo get a lot more praise, this one stands as the top of the heap in my world. It has all of the elements I want in a movie. Even the soundtrack is great.

I’m not doing it justice, but I’m also not really trying. This is not a film to have spoiled on an Internet blog. You should go rent this and watch it, and you should do this in the next few days. Put it on your NetFlix queue, and when it shows up, make some popcorn and enjoy it.

If you can’t watch a Hitchcock movie without looking for the director’s cameo, he’s the guy who misses getting on the bus right at the end of the opening credits.

Why to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark: It’s one of the most culturally important American films of the last 50 years, and it’s awesome.
Why not to watch: You no longer are in touch with your inner child.

Why to watch Tampopo: It’s made of perfection.
Why not to watch: If you’re hungry when it starts, you’ll end up ravenous.

Why to watch North by Northwest: Because it’s the greatest movie ever made.
Why not to watch: Because you want to spoil my birthday.


  1. Bahahah lovely reason not to watch it :D

  2. Raiders - I also saw this in the theater; I was 17, I think. I rarely was able to go see movies, so any were special, and like you I felt this one was fantastic. I hadn't seen much grossness, having seen relatively few movies, so the face melting scene bothered me. It's minor compared to what's in films these days, though.

    Tampopo - I watched this years ago on the recommendation of a co-worker. I got a good laugh from it. I saw it as almost a parody of the American Western where John Wayne (or Clint Eastwood, if you prefer), rides into town, saves the widow from the bad guys, then rides off into the sunset. In this case it's not shooting the bad guys, but showing the widow how to make perfect noodles.

    North By Northwest - I won't ruin your birthday. It's not my favorite movie of all time (you saw from my recent post that that is The Princess Bride), but it is a great movie. It is a phobia of mine (being accused of something I didn't do and having no one believe me), so perhaps a little like your reaction to being trapped somewhere that took this film down just a little bit for me. I still have seen it multiple times, though.

  3. Yeah, the face melting bugged me a bit in Raiders, too. Not anymore, of course.

    Tampopo was originally recommended to me by a college roommate, and boy was he right. To tie it closer to Westerns, there's even a sequence in the middle that is straight out of a Western, where the guys from the other shop walk in and threaten Tampopo and Goro.

    As for North by Northwest, hey, I'm cool with it not being your favorite. And I get that phobia.

  4. I just watched Tampopo for a second time today. What is this movie, I don't even... it's so much of everything, and it SHOULDN'T work because it's so all over the place, but it DOES. It WORKS. And it's bloody fantastic. Tampopo is a film that really surprised me; I had next to zero expectations for it, and it just exploded on the screen, full of all kinds of fun and whimsy and a surprising dose of heart. I honestly cannot think of a better food movie than Tampopo. I like your comment about Tampopo as an onion itself.

    1. It's not without reason that I say this is a film of which I never tire. It's also one of those films I was totally in love with before I knew the 1001 Movies list existed.

      I'm with you on food films, although Babette's Feast comes close.

  5. I can only agree with everything you write about North by Northwest. The standout element is the composition, how Hitchcock can have nothing happening for endless minutes and then out of nowhere the scene explodes. That is a masters hand. Hitch only did what he was good at, but boy was he good at it!

    1. Yeah, that's true. The knock against Hitchcock (if there is one) is that he really only told one or two stories, or at least only one or two types of stories. Compare him with Billy Wilder, and Wilder comes off as the far more versatile guy behind the camera, because he could evidently do just about anything.

      That's not a knock on Hitch. There's nothing shameful about being really, really good at one thing.